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The Kejriwal Conundrum

The Delhi chief minister’s apology to political opponents makes sense, up to a point.

A measure of the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) uniqueness in India’s political sphere is the way its internal travails often play out in full public view. A party built on an anti-corruption platform, driven by thousands of volunteers from across the socio-economic spectrum, and striving to explore a “third way” beyond the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, AAP was never likely to lose its atmospherics of a movement even if it became a political formation that governs Delhi. Although it has attracted its share of opportunists, AAP still continues to be powered by the enthusiasm of the many who believe in its alternative politics.

That very base of support has now been rattled by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to apologise to political adversaries who he targeted in the past. Kejriwal has apologised to Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia for accusing him of being involved in Punjab’s notorious drug trade, Congress leader Kapil Sibal and his son Amit for alleging that there was a conflict of interest when the latter appeared in court for a telecom firm, and union cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari for naming him in a list of corrupt figures.

Kejriwal’s apologies have disappointed AAP supporters—parti­cularly the Punjab unit of the party that had made drugs a focus of its election campaign in the 2017 elections. Some prominent backers have also distanced themselves from the party. Former AAP leader Anjali Damania has said she feels “deceived” by Kejriwal’s move. The sum of their critique is that Kejriwal’s decision amounts to a form of surrender to established interests and one that affects the party’s identity going into the future.

Yet, Kejriwal’s supporters defend him strongly, arguing that he has chosen to focus on governance in Delhi rather than waste time flying around the country attending hearings on the defamation cases filed against him. Defamation cases, they point out, have become a reliable instrument to exhaust adversaries. Getting convicted in such cases would entail years in prison, something that could prove costly for the party given that Kejriwal is its principal asset. Discretion is the better part of valour, they reckon.

This argument has its merits. The AAP government has been under extraordinary pressure in Delhi. Lieutenant governors in the capital have made it amply clear that it is they who call the shots and have often overruled Kejriwal’s policy decisions. Bureaucrats working for the Delhi government owe their careers to the union government, not the former. In recent times, no other opposition party in India has been subject to so much bureaucratic scrutiny.

The party appears to have decided that it is better to protect its interests in Delhi and retain the following it has developed among the poor through lowered power tariffs, the impressive turnaround in Delhi government schools and the functioning of mohalla clinics. This is a much smaller canvas to work with compared to its nationwide ambitions in 2014, but it is one that AAP cannot afford to squander. Also, Kejriwal had other optics to consider. If he was to continue his confrontational approach against opponents, face jail time and lose power in the process, he would have opened himself up again to the charge of failing to stick to the job—a disastrous prospect second time round, having once resigned as Delhi’s chief minister.

The national implications of the party’s current situation are also not inconsiderable. The crisis will have a demoralising ­effect on AAP cadres in states like Punjab and Maharashtra, where it has developed a sizeable presence. The opposition space will be weaker if AAP struggles to find its voice in the run-up to the general election. Kejriwal and his colleagues might bank on getting Delhi right and anticipate that retaining control of the capital could still be the basis of future consolidation and ­expansion. But that outcome is by no means assured, notwithstanding the support of the poor.

The real question that this crisis provokes is about the kind of politician Kejriwal will be in the future. Can he continue to be a compelling campaigner without the cut and thrust of political combat? What happens to the party rank and file that has come to depend on his rhetorical strengths? Although the urgency of winning Delhi in 2019 might yet see Kejriwal return to his combative mode, this controversy highlights AAP’s grave weakness—that its fortunes depend too much on Kejriwal’s personality. Once its opponents find ways to constrain its main leader, the effectiveness of the entire enterprise becomes questionable. Would the situation have been different if Kejriwal still had ­Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan alongside him? Perhaps the party would not have been as vulnerable as it is now had it managed to build a diverse, collegiate leadership with fewer divisions in its ranks. That AAP does well in Delhi—a microcosm of India—speaks to the potential of a platform that is committed to transparency and the poor. Kejriwal may have been pragmatic in discerning his liabilities, but he might not be able to recover the moment that has been lost.

Updated On : 29th Mar, 2018

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